When we go on our annual trip to Rome, invariably someone says “woo-hoo, must be nice to be rich.” We’re far from rich (though I dare to dream), but I’ve found that trips to Rome can be comparable in price to those in the States. In fact, I usually find Chicago, New York, Philly, Phoenix, Boston, Orlando (especially Orlando), and many other American cities more expensive than the city that was once the capital of the world. With airlines frequently running cheap flights to Rome and lodging options for every price range—your Roman holiday may be in reach. There are many travel deals to Italy to be had. Here are my tips for free things to do in Rome and cheap eats.
Rome is an open-air museum. Many of its ancient sites unfold before you as you meander along its cobbled streets. Although one may not be able to deeply explore archaeological sites (like the Colosseum) without paying an entrance fee, walking around these fabulous places is free. In fact, a good deal of the city’s ancient treasures can be seen from the cheap seats, so get out and explore.
Monuments, Museums, and Historical Sites (free to some degree)
- Arch of Constantine (free)—ancient triumphal arch
- Teatro Marcello (free)—ancient theater that predates Colosseum
- Portico d’Ottavia (free)—ancient portico, surrounding Jewish Ghetto has many historical aspects to explore for free
- Largo Argentina (free)—archaeological sites with many temple fragments
- Circus Maximus (free)—ancient race track
- Baths of Diocletian (free to walk through the remains that are part of the adjacent church designed by Michelangelo, Santa Maria degli Angeli)—ancient baths and a Michelangelo masterpiece
- Column of Marcus Aurelius (free)—ancient triumphal column
- Roman Forum & other forums (free to view from various walkways surrounding the archaeological sites; pay to walk through the site which includes entry to Colosseum)—former centers of Roman life which are easily viewable from streets and walkways crossing the sites
- Il Vittoriano (free entry to site; elevator to rooftop requires fee)—huge monument to exalt Italian unification
- Museum of Souls in Purgatory (free)—museum of artifacts regarding purgatory, located in the church Sacro Cuore del Suffragio
- Museo della via Ostiense in Porta San Paola (free)—museum of the ancient Aurelian walls and gateway leading to Ostia; it offers a great view of the nearby pyramid
Fountains (free to visit)—there are many fountains, but here are some of my favorites:
- Trevi Fountain—world famous fountain where you can toss a coin to ensure your return
- Fontana delle Tartarughe—charming “turtle” fountain in Piazza Mattei
- Fountain of the Four Rivers—Bernini’s masterpiece in Piazza Navona
- Fontana dell’Aqua Paolo—huge fountain atop Janiculum Hill
- Fontana delle Naiadi—gorgeous fountain of nymphs in Piazza della Repubblica
- Fontana del Pantheon—fountain surrounding ancient obelisk in Piazza della Rotunda
Piazzas (free to visit)
- Piazza Navona—three magnificent fountains, street performers, artists, and musicians can all be found in this popular square
- Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps)—this piazza leads to the famous Spanish Steps
- Piazza del Popolo—a great fountain surrounding an obelisk centers this happening hotspot
- Peter’s Square—fountains, sculptures, and the pope all make this piazza a must-see
- Campidoglio—Michelangelo designed the steps leading to this fabulous square with stunning views of the Roman Forum
- Piazza della Rotunda—sit on the base of the fountain and enjoy staring at the ancient portico of the Pantheon
- Piazza di Pietra—local bars makes this a hip place for Romans to hang out after work while looking upon the columns of an ancient temple
- Piazza della Madonna dei Monti—a great place to sit and have a drink while people-watching in the cool neighborhood of Monti
- Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere—a fountain in the center provides seating to hang out and enjoy this local neighborhood “living room”
Churches (all free)—there are so many churches in Rome that it’s hard to list only a few, but here are some of my favorites (these are all free; I haven’t found a Roman Catholic church yet that charged for admission):
- Pantheon—originally a temple to all gods, this ancient church is remarkably well-preserved
- Peter’s Basilica—with a Michelangelo dome and pieta and Bernini art this beautiful church is also the largest in Christendom
- Santa Maria sopra Minerva—the only Gothic church in Rome, the interior has a stunning blue ceiling and features a Michelangelo statue
- San Luigi dei Francesci—known for Caravaggio paintings of St. Mathew, this chiesa is bella
- Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli—this church features Michelangelo’s Moses and St. Peter’s chains
- Basilica di San Clemente—the medieval church with beautiful frescoed chapels is free, but for a fee you can descend below to a 4th century basilica and deeper to a mithraeum and Republican-era buildings
- Santa Maria del Popolo—this church features the renowned Chigi Chapel by Raphael and works by Bernini and Caravaggio
- Santa Maria dell’Anima—not far from Piazza Navona, this church never seems to get much traffic so it’s perfect for peaceful contemplation or to enjoy the beautiful paintings within
Neighborhoods (free to walk around & see sites listed)
- Aventine Hill area—visit the Temple of Hercules Victor, the Temple of Portunus, and the keyhole of the Knights of Malta on Aventine Hill, as well as spend time in the Parco Savello (Giardino degli Aranci) with its beautiful views of St. Peter’s and Rome’s ancient city center
- Trastevere—starting from the other side of the Tiber cross Tiber Island and then stroll via dell’Arco dei Tolomei and via dei Salumi, check out the mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere and then enjoy the lively atmosphere in the square out front, walk about Janiculum Hill and see the sites there including Fontana dell’Acqua Paolo
- Testaccio—see the Aurelian Walls up close and a museum detailing them with a good view of the Pyramid of Cestius, pay your respects at the Protestant Cemetery, and stroll around this neighborhood with great restaurants and an authentic market
- Monti—lots of chic boutiques make this a great place to shop and on the weekends check out Mercato Monti
Markets (free to visit)
- Testaccio—this market features everything from clothes to groceries to food stands—there is something for everyone. For a tasty sandwich at a good price (3-5€), try one from Mordi e Vai (a glass of wine is super cheap, too, around 2€).
- Campo de’ Fiori—a statue of Giordano Bruno who was executed as a heretic on this spot punctuates the center of this popular food and flower market
Gardens (free to visit)
- Borghese Gardens (called villa Borghese)—the Pincio Terrace provides a stunning view of Rome. You can wander around these massive gardens on foot or (for a fee) rent a bike. There are boats to rent, too, and other activities to do throughout the gardens.
- Parco Savello (also called Giardino degli Aranci)—charming little orange garden with great views on Aventine Hill
- Pizza al taglio—pizza by the slice is found in many great Roman bakeries. They charge by the weight, so be careful to order only what you plan to eat. Antico Forno Roscioli on via dei Chiavari is great.
- Suppli—fried balls of rice make for a light lunch or filling snack. Try Supplizio on via dei Banchi Vecchi for some of the best around.
- Coffee standing up—when ordering your espresso make sure to take it standing up. Even the priciest cafes charge a reasonable price for espresso as long as you drink it standing up at the bar. Beware though that sitting down could take the price of the java from 1€ to 5€.
- Aperitivo—if you’re looking for a meal and a drink, check out the plentiful options available during aperitivo or apericena time (around 6 or 7 in the evening). For the price of a drink (around 10€), you get the drink and access to the food they’ve presented. At some places this can mean a buffet of pizza, pasta dishes, salads, and appetizers. Light eaters can easily make a dinner out of it. (see pic below for what one of these buffets can look like)
- Forno Campo de’ Fiori—this historic bakery serves up some of the best pizza bianca around. Try some with mortadella for a true Roman sandwich experience.
- Mercato Centrale—located near the main train station this food court provides many tantalizing experience for your taste buds at decent prices—pizzas, pastas, fried foods, hamburgers, and more. Famed chef Gabriele Bonci serves up pizza by the slice. Stefano Callegari has one of his trapazzino stands there—these delectable sandwiches are triangular pockets of fluffy pizza dough filled with yummy ingredients like meatballs.
- Pastificio Guerra—this pasta shop serves a couple of fresh pasta dishes every day for a ridiculously cheap price (4€). Your choices may be limited and it is only for take-away, but I don’t know where else you can get fresh-made pasta for such a pittance.
- Here’s a link to my favorite Roman restaurants: https://roaminghistorian.com/2018/07/29/rome-restaurants-roman-food/
The cheapest way to get around the city is on foot, but Rome can wear you out so I also recommend using public transportation. The metro is limited, but regular, and may be able to get you in walking distance of your location and save a lot of foot fatigue. Buses are notoriously unreliable. I’ve waited for 40 minutes for a bus that was supposed to come every 20 minutes, I’ve seen the same number bus arrive at a stop back to back, and I’ve waited for close to an hour for a bus that never arrived. That being said, I’ve also had great success, too…and it’s a cheap way to get around the city and get to the many areas that the metro doesn’t service. Here is my guide for using Rome’s bus service: https://roaminghistorian.com/2017/06/25/rome-public-transport/.
I hope a Roman holiday is within your reach and that my tips put you even closer to having an Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck moment in Roma! Buon viaggio!
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